The art of leadership and how to sell to electric utilities
I love studying CEOs. I want to know how they work and what tools they use to be successful. But I also want to know how they approach business management.
I’ve known CEOs of all colors: some scream, some are buried in data, and some try the hi-mate-well-met approach.
Some signal their importance by the size and splendor of their offices and planes. Things can go wrong with this approach. I once knew the CEO of a large industrial company who had a glass desk which, through an optical defect, magnified the crotch of his pants.
Some manage with huge teams and others with a “kitchen cabinet” of fellow executives. There is no formula for success.
Robert Schwartz, president and CEO of Anterix, a company that provides private LTE networks for power grid modernization, is devoid of managerial eccentricities. His name is Rob. He is a courteous, studious-looking man. With a calm demeanor, he is remarkably polite and quick to thank and acknowledge his team and vendors for their good work.
This gentlemanly exterior belies his passionate and strategic drive to be the catalyst for change.
He is also patient. That’s all well and good, because at the helm of Anterix, a company that seeks to provide what amounts to a game-changer for the utility industry, patience is required. Utilities move with caution as the consequences of their decisions last for decades.
Although Anterix is a young company, it is gaining a foothold in the utility sector. It has signed three major customers for its networks: San Diego Gas & Electric, Ameren
The company has also launched an ecosystem of leading technology and service providers for the utility industry. Eighty leading companies now work with Anterix to deliver broadband solutions to its customers.
Schwartz’s patience is rewarded.
Anterix has a unique national asset of 900 MHz wireless spectrum. Carefully assembled and now highly valuable, this spectrum forms the backbone of its product line: private broadband spectrum leases to enable LTE and soon to be 5G communications networks. These private networks allow utilities to communicate securely, ward off cyberattacks, and stay active when other systems have failed.
More importantly, a broadband Anterix network allows utilities to deploy millions of sensors that will move and examine massive amounts of data. This is essential for the modern utility, which needs to know in real time what is happening across its entire system. Anterix likes to say that a wildfire can be prevented because data in its system moves so quickly that a broken transmission line can be identified and powered down before it hits the ground.
Data is the backbone of utility
Every utility manager I speak to tells me that data is the backbone of modern utilities and that its importance is growing exponentially. Anterix wants utilities to be able to use their private broadband networks to transport this data and be able to communicate instantly without vulnerability to disruption.
Schwartz grew up in a household where science was revered. Her late father, Dr. Elias Schwartz, was a renowned pediatric hematologist and former chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He played a key role in elevating the hospital into the global healthcare community. His mother taught biology and genetics at university.
The family expected Schwartz to go into medical science, but he chose business.
Schwartz told me he avoided many offers to go into investment banking or consulting when he graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
But there was science and engineering in Schwartz’s future: telephony. While still a student, he and his brother indulged their entrepreneurial ambitions and technical inclinations by establishing a computer sales company in suburban Philadelphia.
While at Wharton, Schwartz became involved with an organization that partnered the school with Tel Aviv University to help Israeli companies enter the American market. The first company he worked with in Tel Aviv was a telephone company.
Back in the United States, Schwartz contacted a Comcast executive
Fleet Call may have been small, but it was run by a man who thought big and became a legend in the telecommunications industry: Morgan O’Brien. He would go on to create the renowned juggernaut Nextel Communications.
Schwartz told me in an interview that his father and O’Brien were the two great mentors who influenced his career with passion, ambition, vision and decency.
Some of the executives who created Nextel, and changed the face of telephone service, have again rolled the dice with Anterix. They believe they can take utility communications to a new place with private broadband networks.
Southern Company joins the Alliance
The same goes for the Southern Company, which has its own broadband network, Southern Link. Schwartz created the Utility Broadband Alliance, a utility-led, not-for-profit industry association, and Southern joined Anterix as a lead and founding partner to cooperate and create scale in their utility communications focus.
Schwartz is driven by what he calls Anterix’s “meaningful mission” to deliver the modernized communications that enable the integration of new distributed energy sources, including solar, wind and battery storage – essential elements to achieve the decarbonization objectives of public services. He dreams of a “network of networks” for the entire utility industry; a time when data and communications can flow safely through the utility space to protect and modernize America’s electric grid.
After the heady early days of Nextel, Schwartz moved on to other phone companies, including one in Brazil, and married a South African, Maxine, whom he met in New York. They have three sons.
Then came a call from an old boss: O’Brien wanted him in a new company, then called PDV. Among those on board was Brian McCauley, credited to O’Brien as a co-founder of Nextel. O’Brien and Schwartz refocused and renamed the Anterix business with O’Brien as president and CEO and McCauley as president.
Fifteen months ago, McCauley retired, O’Brien became executive chairman, and Schwartz became chairman and CEO as planned.
“Morgan taught me to be passionate about what you choose to do. He taught me all about the enthusiastic journey of entrepreneurship and life. His passion is contagious,” Schwartz said.
When he started at Nextel, Schwartz told me it was a wild place for business and creativity. “I made the deals that Morgan was making quickly, as he built Nextel’s infrastructure. It was fast, furious and extremely exhilarating,” he said.
Selling private broadband networks to utilities is a slower, more focused business, but Schwartz finds it just as vigorous and rewarding.
This could be a banner year for Schwartz and the company that inherited Nextel’s dynamic spirit. More than 60 utilities are in talks with Anterix, and several large, investor-owned utilities are close to signing deals, Schwartz said.
This is where patience comes in.
Schwartz was a middle-distance runner of some fame in his youth. Patience, pace and strategy have allowed him to win races. This is how he hopes to bring Anterix to the finish line and change the ability of utilities to securely communicate and manage data for many decades to come; the way he helped O’Brien switch phones forever.